The British weather is notoriously difficult to forecast, but meteorologists can say with certainty that from today there will be a downpour twice nightly at one spot in London. This precipitation is the work not of the Almighty but of designer Simon Higlett. He is the man with the power to drench dancer Adam Cooper during the famous wet weather scene in Singin’ in the Rain. When the show opened in Chichester last summer, it was showered with praise. Now it transfers to the West End, and Higlett has to bring on the rain inside the cavernous Palace Theatre: a huge Victorian playhouse.
The key, he says, is to get a lot of water on stage very quickly. In his design, Cooper dances in water up to 6in deep: enough to soak not just him but the first few rows of the audience, sharing his euphoria. Higlett’s secret lay in concentrating on the ground more than the sky.
“I’ve done it the other way, so the water comes up through the floor,” he explains. “It does rain – but the enjoyment of the number is that someone can splash.”
I meet Higlett, and production manager Rich Blacksell, mid-way through the fit-up. Flexible pipes trail across the stage, ready to pump 12,000 litres around the system. A large tank lurks in what is usually the orchestra pit. The water will be treated, to prevent bugs, and heated, to prevent hypothermia. But the team also had to bear in mind the West End’s mouse population.
“We have the added challenge of keeping the mice out,” says Blacksell. “We have to stop them staging their own rodent Olympics.” His other headaches include keeping rain out of the electrics, the lighting rig, the LEDs in the floor, the actors’ radio microphones and the timber.
Water has seeped into drama for millennia. The Romans flooded amphitheatres to stage spectacular sea battles; nautical melodramas were all the rage, too, in Georgian drama. In 1794 Drury Lane Theatre created a miniature lake big enough to row a boat on; ten years later Sadler’s Wells installed a tank holding 50,000 gallons of water on which to stage nautical battles complete with cannon fire and waves.
Today, such splashy extravaganzas may be less to our taste but theatre practitioners still like to dabble – usually to more subtle and symbolic effect. Designer Miriam Buether flooded London’s Young Vic Theatre for Tarell Alvin McCraney’s In the Red and Brown Water, creating a shimmering pool that reflected the poetic nature of the work. Madam Butterfly at the Royal Albert Hall (revived last year), played out in a Japanese water garden, which was then paved over along with Butterfly’s hopes. Robert Lepage staged a memorably muddy Midsummer Night’s Dream in the National Theatre in 1992; in 2000, the Almeida created a lagoon for The Tempest; in a 2005 production of Büchner’s Woyzeck, the Icelandic theatre company Vesturport had Woyzeck drown Marie in an onstage glass tank, to harrowing effect.
Higlett has got his feet wet several times. He designed Tim Firth’s comedy Neville’s Island in 2005, turning the huge Birmingham Rep stage into a lake 6ft deep in places, into which characters disappeared. “You could do it without water, but it wouldn’t be as funny.” His set for The Grapes of Wrath at Chichester in 2009, however, used water to the opposite effect: to underscore the miserable plight of the Joad family: “It was heavy-duty, lashing rain: it really made a difference dramatically.”
Even 3D movies haven’t yet cracked a way of making water wet or fire hot on screen, giving theatre practitioners the live advantage over film. But in Singin’ in the Rain, the irony is that while the water is spectacularly, tangibly wet, the rest of the show is deliberately make-believe.
“I don’t make any attempt at naturalism,” explains Higlett. “He’s in a film studio the whole time. We’re not trying to pretend anything here: you see the rain-bars, you see how it works, then you have the joy of someone dancing in the water.”
The show finishes with 25 dancers splashing in the flood. There’s a child-like delight in splashing that appeals to the audience, Higlett suggests. It’s something the company Fevered Sleep drew on in their recent children’s show And the Rain Falls Down, which invited audiences to bring their wellies and join in. Singin’ in the Rain hasn’t gone that far but it does provide waterproofs for everyone in the front of the stalls. And the audience even cheers the mop-up operation.
“We use big squeegees,” says Higlett. “It’s all part of the evening. He’s danced in the rain; we have to clear it up.”
‘Singin’ in the Rain’, Palace Theatre, London. www.singinintherain.co.uk